COLUMBUS - It was a game of cat-and-mouse yesterday as Columbus Grove was chased but never caught in a 75-62 Division IV state semifinal basketball victory over Windham at Value City Arena.
The win by the unranked Bulldogs (21-5) sends them to their first state final tomorrow at 10:45 a.m. against fifth-ranked South Webster (25-2).
Grove was paced by 31 points from junior guard Eric Maag and 26 points and 13 rebounds from senior forward Kyle Meyer.
Before this season, the Bulldogs hadn't even won a district title since 1952. But they were not awed by the surroundings, or the crowd of 12,962.
They started out by hitting 10 of their 16 first-quarter shots, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range, to take a 26-13 lead after eight minutes.
After bolting to a quick 11-0 lead, Grove stretched its lead to 15 points on three occasions early in the second quarter, the last at 32-17 on two Jordan Darbyshire free throws 6:07 before halftime.
"Our start was a great start," Bulldogs coach Troy Schwemley said. "It definitely propelled us and we came out with confidence. That's always good to see, in that environment, not being overwhelmed by where you're playing."
Maag had 13 of his points in the first half, and Meyer notched 10 of his in the opening 16 minutes.
"When I have it one-on-one down in the post, I think I can score on just about anybody," said the 6-foot-5 Meyer, who was 10-of-14 from the field. "I didn't want to be selfish. I just thought I could help my team by scoring in the post."
The Bombers (22-4), who missed their first eight attempts from the field, finally got on the board with 4:45 left in the first quarter on a 3-pointer from Brett Apthorpe.
Despite its poor start, Windham refused to go away, and the Bombers continued to fire away from beyond the arc. They used a 15-6 run to close the half behind just 38-32.
Apthorpe, who was 4-of-8 on 3-point tries in the first half, hit back-to-back 3s 2:28 and 1:54 before the break, and teammate Zach Jacobson's 15-foot jumper with six seconds left in the half kept Windham within range.
Grove pushed its lead to 45-33 early in the third quarter and led 50-37 after Maag's bucket with 4:52 left in the period. Again, Windham made a surge, outscoring the Bulldogs 16-6 to close the third.
Apthorpe's buzzer-beating lay-up to close the quarter drew the Bombers within 56-53, the closest they had been after the game's first 1:10.
But, just as it had done the first three quarters, Grove started the fourth with a positive spurt. When Maag canned the last of his five 3-pointers with 5:04 remaining, the Bulldogs led 65-57.
"If you look at our tournament run," Schwemley said, "this game was very similar. We come out, get a lead, then have a couple letdowns and let 'em get a little closer. Maybe that's just to keep it exciting. Then we make our free throws and find a way to win at the end."
Grove's run included a 66-50 district semifinal win over top-ranked and previously unbeaten league rival Ottoville, the champion of the Putnam County League.
Maag iced things at the foul line yesterday, hitting 8 of 10 from the stripe in the final 3:29.
"I work pretty hard on my free throws because I know I'm going to get to the line at the end of the game," said Maag, who hit 10 of 12 total. "Coach wants me to have the ball in my hands."
Columbus Grove was 24-of-
45 (53 percent) from the field, 21-of-28 from the line, and outrebounded Windham 41-28. "We came out firing," Schwemley said. "It seemed like every shot we took was going in. Eventually the percentages are going to catch up with you. That's where you pound it inside and get to the free throw line."
The Bombers were 26-of-68 from the field (38 percent), including 5-of-28 from 3-point range. They hit 5 of 7 free throws.